Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Triumph of the Cross

Yesterday was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is apparently a much bigger deal in the Orthodox Church. This is probably because it was inspired by the Emperor Constantine's mother, Helen, finding the remains of the cross used to crucify "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." At least that's the story. But it's a big enough feast in the Catholic Church to get me musing about the triumph of the cross. This is probably boring, so I should mention that at the very bottom there is an awesome excerpt from a letter about the gruesome torture of early Christian martyrs.

How radiant is that precious cross which brought us our salvation. In the cross we are victorious, through the cross we shall reign, by the cross all evil is destroyed, alleluia.
[Morning Prayer, Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Antiphon 3]

This life is an epic spiritual battle between forces of good and evil. But Jesus has already won the battle for us.

God did not create sin or evil or death but rather creatures capable, by an act of free will, to choose sin and commit evil deeds. Sin always results from a turning away from God and, therefore, "is nothing short of cooperation with evil, a willful act of assent to the force that wishes to destroy every good thing and leave nothing but death and destruction in its wake." [Conversion Diary] This communion with evil rather than good is a poison that brings death.

The role of Jesus is not to step in and free humanity from any responsibility for our actions, even though our collective sins cause the innocent to suffer. In fact, Jesus is the greatest example of a suffering innocent. Jesus does not remove all Earthly suffering. It's wrong to think that if I'm faithful enough I will never enduring suffering (and certainly not unjust suffering!). Jesus himself said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." [Luke 9:23] In fact, Jesus insists that anyone who wants to follow him needs to start suffering.

It is wrong to think that if I just pray often enough, or loudly enough, or with enough emotion God will always give me what I want. To expect that I will receive whatever I want if I just believe that God will give it to me is not Christian thinking. It is the type of new age spirituality touted by The Secret. Instead, when we look to Jesus, we find that he himself prayed, "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." [Luke 22:42] Let's just say the cup was not removed…

The plans of God are all ordered toward the salvation of souls. Sometimes it's easy to see the spiritual goods that come out of suffering. But sometimes the goods are hidden and all we can see is fruitless anguish. In the Old Testament, Job demanded that God provide an answer as to why he was suffering. God replied with many more questions: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth??? Tell me, if you have understanding." Job finally got the message: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." Sometimes it's just too much to comprehend.

John Lennon may have imagined a world with "no religion" and "all the people living in peace." However, from the Christian point of view this is nothing but mystical wishful thinking. We work toward alleviating suffering because we love our neighbors, not out of a hubristic expectation that we can create heaven on Earth (if only there were no religion and everybody drove Volvos and never criticized anyone and only bathed once per week and so on and so on).

So what was the role of Jesus if not to prevent sin and evil? The role of Jesus is to restore us to perfect communion with God--i.e. redemption, regaining possession of the ultimate good. The result is becoming what God created me to be, which is free from sin and death. That is the ultimate prize, and something that clearly doesn't come to fruition in this life.

Sin results from disobedience to God's ways. As St. Paul explained so well in Romans, no human being was capable of perfect obedience to God's laws, and so everybody was condemned. God became man to fulfill the requirement of perfect obedience. And so Jesus is the only person who can enter Heaven (perfect union with God) by his own merit. By obedience he atoned for the sins of mankind. "As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men." [Romans 5:18] Through communion with Jesus in his human nature we are also in communion with Jesus in his Divine nature and, therefore, achieve communion with God. Freedom from death without communion with God is a curse. As St. Ambrose said, "Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing."

Theologians argue as to whether or not Jesus had to be crucified in order to restore that communion. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that by taking his first breath as a baby he had saved the world. Couldn't he have been perfectly obedient to God in his carpenter shop until dying of old age? But the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The cross mocks the devil because his plan backfired.

Think about it. The devil tempted humanity to turn away from God and to serve worldly gods, seeking passing goods rather than eternal ones. Then God decided to be born as a human being, limiting himself (as St. Paul said, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped) so that he can interact directly with his creatures on the worldly/temporal level. But the devil was able to foil God's plan again, by manipulating the humans into committing the worst possible evil. They decided to kill God! (Now Jesus was not "killed" so much as gave up his spirit when the Father decided it was time, but as far as the humans were concerned they were killing Jesus.) It was not until the evil deed was done that the centurion finally realized its severity, as he exclaimed "Truly, this man was the Son of God!" [Mark 15:39] And for about three days the devil must have been elated. But then somehow Jesus was alive as if nothing had happened. He was different because he could walk through walls, but he was alive and could eat and run and hug his friends. And he promised the same to anyone who came after him so long as they are his friends (something he himself will judge). That is the good news that people are willing to proclaim even under penalty of death. This is what allowed the martyrs to face death without fear.*** They were eager for the eternal reward!

In the Triumph of the Cross, we see that even the worst sin can be forgiven and every evil transformed into a greater good. It's a transformation rather than a manipulation. Every suffering is a mini crucifixion through which we can be transformed by suffering, dying, and rising. "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." [Hebrews 12:1-2]

For the joy set before us, let us endure the cross, despising the shame, and run the race with perseverance until we too are seated at the right hand of the throne of God!

***From a letter by Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr (from the Divine Office, OOR August 13):

With what praises can I extol you, most valiant brothers? What words can I find to proclaim and celebrate your brave hearts and your persevering faith? Examined under the fiercest torture, you held out until your ordeal was consummated in glory; it was not you who yielded to the torments but rather the torments that yielded to you. No respite from pain was allowed by the instruments of your torture, but your very crowning signaled the end of pain. The cruel butchery was permitted to last the longer, not so that it might overthrow the faith that stood so firm, but rather that it might dispatch you, men of God, more speedily to the Lord.

The crowd in wonder watched God’s heavenly contest, this spiritual battle that was Christ’s. They saw his servants standing firm, free in speech, undefiled in heart, endowed with supernatural courage, naked and bereft of the weapons of this world, but as believers equipped with the arms of faith. Tortured men stood there stronger than their torturers; battered and lacerated limbs triumphed over clubs and claws that tore them.

Savage and prolonged beating could not overcome such invincible faith, even when the bodies of God’s servants were so mangled that no whole members were left to suffer punishment, but only wounds remained. Enough blood flowed to quench the fire of persecution, a glorious river to cool even the burning heat of hell. What a divine display it was, how sublime and magnificent! How pleasing did the sworn allegiance and loyalty of his soldiers render the dead in God’s sight! In the psalms, where the Holy Spirit speaks to us and counsels us, it is written: Precious in the sight of God is the death of his holy ones. Rightly is that death called “precious,” for at the price of blood it purchased immortality and won God’s crown through the ultimate act of courage.

How happy Christ was to be there, how gladly he fought and conquered in such servants! He protects their faith and gives strength to believers in proportion to the trust that each man who receives that strength is willing to place in him. Christ was there to wage his own battle; he aroused the soldiers who fought for his name; he made them spirited and strong. And he who once for all has conquered death for us, now continually conquers in us.

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